Friday, August 27, 2010

GREETINGS FROM EUROPE

It has been nearly five weeks since I arrived on this continent, my first time ever. Until now I have had the luxury of traveling with my wise and equally pioneering partner Jenine. We've spent ten days in Paris, two on the road south to Catalonia, and three in Barcelona. From there we flew a budget flight to Berlin and spent three days in Berlin, two in Hamburg, and ten in the Netherlands.

We've enjoyed true teamwork in showing all of our hosts due appreciation, successfully hitching 1500 kilometers (thanks in part to hitchwiki), utilizing the couch-surfing website for the first time, exploring tantalizingly vast flea and farmer markets (in every single city), and immersing ourselves in each local dialect and public transit system. We've encouraged each others' individual interests, such as my fetish for hilltop urban panoramas and her craft gallery hunts, her traditional cuisine (and quality pastry) cravings and my immigrant enclave pilgrimages, my organic wine and her unfiltered beet juice. Jenine's leg of the journey has ended. She flew back across the ocean and I remain to continue alone through another ten countries or so, for the next 27 days.

Here are some details from our month together in western Europe. Our week and a half in the city of light multiplied in magic with the help of my Parisian confidantes, who extended their home to us so openly. Vera, an expat of the states I met back in high-school, Guillaume, her lovely French husband, and their two beautiful children hosted as if we were part of their tribe, which we are. Their influence made our stay more authentic and less confusingly tourist-like, complete with plenty of sidewalk cafe lounging and pronunciatory practice.

Highlights involved several long walks across swaths of urban juiciness. From Chatelet to Gare de Lyon by way of Le Marais, Place de Vosges, and Bastille. From Gare du Nord to Chateau Rouge via Little Jafna, La Fayette, La Chapelle, and Little Africa (lots of zigzagging). From Trocadero to Grenelle. From Menilmontant to Republique. Mind you, our trip has been about as shoestring as it gets, without skimping out on essential indulgences.

We cut out the more expensive and touristy endeavors like ascending the Arc de Triomphe and Eiffel tower, though they're in the backgrounds of some of our pictures, since we walked past them. The Louvre and several other museums were cut out due mostly to time constraints. I mean there's only one day a month that they're all free. We did however make it to le Musee d'Art Moderne, which is always free, and Jenine got to see le Musee des Arts Decoratifs.

Both our birthdays (three days apart) were celebrated in Paris, oddly without any friends or family, but with each other at least. For Jenine's 31st year we had a lavish lunch of salade de gesiers, confit de canard, and pain perdu at a cute little place in the Latin Quarter, followed by a stroll through the flower-filled Jardin du Luxembourg. For my 29th, we each bought our favorite bottled beverage and a bag of fresh beignets & baklava, and sat on a bench at Parc de Belleville while slimy escargots crawled up our shoes. That steep, terraced park, its view of the metropolis, and the diverse neighborhood below it, were my favorite parts of Paris. On the other hand, my biggest disappointment was le Quartier Chinois. I guess I'm spoiled by New York, where you almost teleport 7000 miles from one block to another.

Seven different drivers transported us from Paris to Barcelona, and we witnessed many other hitch hikers, mostly our age, competing on the same ramps and stations. We started out by commuter rail to Villabe, the first petrol stop on the outskirts. Jenine had made a neat, bold sign in cursive and while I was surveying the parking lot, a benevolent middle-aged man named Gu approached her to offer a ride. He drove us through 225 kilometers of enchanting sunflower fields, until we arrived at a petrol stop in Chateauroux. Within 15 minutes we scored a ride with Lucie et Paul, a friendly young French couple en route to visit grandparents for the weekend. 200 kilometers later and long after dusk we were dropped off at a truck stop we couldn't get out of until after sunrise. We were high up in the Massif Central, which meant a cold night, but we survived indoors.

The next morning Phillippe, a young mountain climber, gave us a ride to Toulouse (another 200 km). I nearly had a heart attack of the culture shock kind when he instructed us to walk across all the toll barriers in order to catch a ride toward Barcelona. In the U.S. you'd get jailed for that. In France, the police wave, smile, and wish you luck. About an hour later we were off toward Narbonne (200 km) with a wonderful Languedoc-Italian trucker named Fabrizio. He was the same age as us and he excitedly told us about his recent trip to NYC. The next two rides were short and sweet (100 km combo). One with Robert (French pronunciation) and the other with Daniel, a Romanian truck driver whose ice melted a few minutes after he realized there were two of us, and that we were heading into Spain. We agreed to get off right before the border, since three occupants is illegal in those monsters. Go figure. Our final 150 km into Catalunya were courtesy of Olivier, a middle-aged man with a whole lot of wisdom. He picked up a young German hitch hiker too, and time accelerated on four-way chatter.

Barcelona showered us with all sorts of miracles. We found ourselves at a train station on the outskirts, dumbfounded by the complex system of the ticketing machine, with no agent in sight. Out of nowhere appeared Daniela, a Peruvian transplant who happened to be going to the same beach-side neighborhood we were trying to go.... which leads us to an earlier miracle. Barcelona was the only destination we had where all of our contacts had moved away, so we were left to fend for ourselves in finding shelter, which would not happen at a reasonable price nowat the height of tourist season. In preparation, I had gone on couchsurfing.org and spent several hours writing personable requests to 50 different people who had their doors open to travelers, but had to be convinced of an encounter that would be worth their while. They all replied with declines, except one.

Anni is an awesome older woman who lives alone, but has up to ten couch-surfers at a time, from around the world, covering every surface of her tiny apartment. She welcomed us, as long as we could handle sleeping on the balcony, which was fine by us. Through her we made friends with backpackers from Serbia, California, Tunisia, Taiwan, Portugal, and France. We shared much of our walks through Barcelona with various combos of them. My favorite thing about that city was all the imaginative Gaudi architecture, Parc Guell, and the old Jewish quarter (housing the oldest synagogue in Europe). Aside from the incredible and downright ancient marketplace there (La Boqueria), the main drag (La Rambla) was engorged with knickknack merchants and swarms of tourists flocked around street performers and buskers (many of whom, I enjoyed.)

Berlin was next on the itinerary. It started on a serendipitous note. A random RISD alumni walked past us at the airport, sporting the logo on her tote bag. Jenine beckoned her into what became an ongoing explosion of enthusiasm between two strangers, as if long lost relatives had reunited. I attended a commuter college, so I can only imagine experiencing that perhaps if I encountered a fellow yellow NYC cabdriver on the other side of the planet.

My good friend Jeffrey picked us all up and gave her a ride to her hotel, which was on the way home. I met Jeffrey in the days after Katrina, when we came together through mutual friends to deliver emergency aid supplies and funds to hurricane victims in Mississippi. He's a New Yorker who married a German and moved into the hip district of East Kreuzberg. He graciously hosted our stay and treated us to some of the best Turkish food in town, and the best falafel Jenine has ever had.

Our time in Berlin was brief for such a spread out and happening city. We borrowed bicycles to maximize it. I was glad to have an opportunity to transform my impression of the German language and people, since all my life the only associations were through movies like Schindler's List and the few Germans I had met, many of whom were cold, stiff, and stern. Memorable moments for me included an authentic local meal at Max and Moritz's, lunch with Andrea's brother Ted (at Rogacki), dinner at Aaron's quasi-rural shack, witnessing the parking lot that was once Hitler's death bunker, and riding past the stark Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe.

Jenine has a friend in Hamburg, so we caught a bus there. It was our shortest visit to any city and the northernmost point of our journey. The first night we went to a free concert featuring an old member of the International Noise Brigade, Grey Filastine. I can appreciate the audio and video collage of sounds and images without borders, but I have a hard time using them to get into a dancing mood. In every genre, there are certain songs that just knock me onto my feet and keep me moving until I nearly drown in my own sweat, but not the beats he was playing.

The next morning at the swap meet in St. Pauli I saw a small group of white rude boys spinning classic reggae records, which brought a smile to my face. I've always had Oi Oi! in my heart. Later we walked home along the massive ship canal and witnessed an encampment of two dozen people lined up neatly in their sleeping bags under a wide bridge. Another thing we noticed was a small crowd of grunge huddled in a field. As our friend later explained, here you have designated spots where people are allowed to pursue their hard drug habits without police interference.

The following day we hitched out of Hamburg with a simple sign that read "NL" in big letters. Local city buses weren't running due to a road bike race, so we got in a taxi that stopped for us without being hailed, when he saw us at the bus shelter with luggage. He was a pleasant hack from Togo who shuttled us to the highway rest area, where we stood for three hours and nearly gave up when two more couples showed up with towering rucksacks and began assertively approaching every motorist gassing up. We stepped up our game and got out of there first, with two men on their way to work fixing boats in Rotterdam. It was one straight shot all the way to Utrecht. Well worth the wait. Amir (my dad's cousin's son) picked us up where they left us, and thus began our week and a half stay in the Netherlands, as guests of my father's relatives (fantastic people).

Jenine attended her Fab Lab conference and graduation in Amsterdam the first five days. She'd commute by train and I'd remain in Utrecht, spending quality time with family I'd never spent much time around. I drove in a foreign country for the first time. We tried the freshest fish I'd tasted, on the coast near The Hague. We had Dutch pancakes, an edible plate filled with any odd combination of ingredients you fancy. We attended an Earth Overshoot get-together in Amersfoort. We got a walking tour of Utrecht with Keren and one of Nieuwegein with Marieke.

Amir and Marieke took us to see the processes of making cheese and wooden shoes, dikes, an old fishing village, and the red light district of Amsterdam. I'd never seen sex workers displaying themselves neatly inside a glass booth like that before, nor had I smelled so much pot in the air across so many city blocks at once. Yankale drove us to the border town of Aachen, to visit Batia, my dad's dad's sister, whom I'd never met before, and her adorable husband Hermann. I got to hear her memories of walking from Romania to Italy and catching a boat to Palestine after World War II. Batia looks like a female clone of my grandfather. On our drive back we stopped in a small Belgian town so Jenine could pay her friend Cybele a brief visit. We brushed through Antwerp as well (looking for waffles.) I'd like to explore that city more next time.

That brings us up to date. A couple days ago, after seeing Jenine off, I took a 20 minute budget flight from Holland to London. I walked from Liverpool station on the East End to Euston station on the northwest edge of central London, by way of BanglaTown, Brick Lane, Old Street, Barbican, Holborn, and Bloomsbury. I then got in the Tube and emerged at Highgate, to meet my Scottish friend Gregor, whom I'd met on the Bolivian border three years ago. Just backpackers crossing paths randomly. He and his wife put me up for the night and took really, really good care of me. An enormous blessing, considering they're newlywed, she'd never met me, he'd only met me once (under odd circumstances), it was cold outside and hadn't stopped raining for hours, and even the cheapest possible hostel in London would have burned a gaping hole through my pocket.

Yesterday morning I walked through Camden, took in the view from atop Primrose Hill, and continued by foot through Regent's Park, Speaker's Corner (vacant except a few pigeons), and Oxford Circus (a circus of yuppies and tourists). I stepped into the Kabbalah Centre briefly and said hello. I love the brilliant energy in the atmosphere at all of its branches, and I try to make my pilgrimage to each one. Too bad I wasn't prepared for Shabbat. I would have loved to join them in all-white for some splendid meditation. In the afternoon I got in touch with Alfred, a friend I'd made leaving Burning Man last year. I took a bus to his southern neighborhood of Camberwell, which has many African immigrants. We made dinner together, pooled our dirty laundry, and hung out a bit.

I'm now fixing to go back into central London to see a map exhibit at the British Library and then catch a coach to Luton Airport for an evening WizzAir flight to Katowice in Poland. I'll sleep at the airport tonight, which according to sleepinginairports.net is not bad. Tomorrow I'll visit my maternal grandfather's hometown of Krakow and the nearby Aushwitz concentration camps, which my mom's dad narrowly missed on his escape to Colombia by boat. Yes, that is why my mom and I are Colombian! Depending on hostel prices or who I meet that likes to host travelers, I may or may not leave by night train to Bratislava, my next destination. I have friends in Vienna, which I plan to visit. Look out Amadeo, here I come!

NEAT THINGS I'VE SCORED AT FLEA MARKETS:
1. TMB (Transports Metropolitans de Barcelona) baseball cap for 1 Euro!
2. Three world cup jerseys for 10 Euros! (Dutch, Portuguese, and Nigerian)
3. Manual buzz-clipper like the one Daniel gave me once (mint condition for 5!).
4. I don't remember what else, but Jenine scored some really cool things. Her blog has details.

3 comments:

  1. Well done and welcome to the Euro Zone.
    Drop me a line if you make it to Dublin

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  2. How old are people your age? :)

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  3. I love it, you must be the only US tourist EVER to have come to Camberwell. Please tell me you were taken for breakfast at Rock Steady Eddies?!? What did you think of it?

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